[Contains mild spoilers]
I just saw Rogue One on Friday, and I’ve been reflecting on it since. I liked it, but found it hard to decide on exactly how much. While new Star Wars movies are routinely judged against how good they are relative to other entries in the franchise (i.e. “Revenge of the Sith is the best of the prequels”, “The Force Awakens is better than Return of the Jedi”, ect), this method fell short when trying to assess Rogue One. After searching my feelings I realized the source of my ambivilence was that the best part of Rogue One isn’t on screen- Rogue One is great because it makes Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope better. After seeing this movie I’m convinced that Rogue One is now the logical starting point for someone wishing to watch the franchise start to finish.
This isn’t just because it chronologically takes place before A New Hope. The prequel trilogy takes place even earlier than Rogue One, but any debate on when to watch the prequels is centered on whether they should be watched between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi as an overextended flashback, after the original trilogy in the order they were released, or not at all. It’s not just a matter of quality- the poor reception of the prequel trilogy notwithstanding, there’s also the problem that it’s also a seven hour long spoiler for one of the greatest twists in movie history. In this respect watching the prequels first doesn’t just fail to improve the experience of watching the originals, they actually make them worse.
And it’s not just issues with quality or spoilers- the prequels also fail as a starting point for franchise viewing because their attempts to outdo feats that won’t appear until later in the story are an indelibly imprint of the order in which the movies were made. Darth Vader is scary with one lightsaber? Darth Maul in Episode I has two (attached end to end). Darth Maul has two? General Grievous in Episode II has four. This isn’t just a case study in diminishing returns- even if these gimmicks had succeeded, they still create the problem that anyone watching the movies chronologically would now see the fight between Obi-Wan and Vader as a dramatic deescalation in the intensity of lightsaber combat. Rogue One on the other hand doesn’t face this problem because it refreshingly features absolutely no Jedi, and a near absence of any Force powers whatsoever. Not only is it an impressive display of faith in the Star Wars universe that the filmmakers believe a story can be carried entirely by the quality of its writing and not by the gimmick of an increasing lightsaber count, but perhaps better than any other aspect of the movie, Rogue One’s take on the Force (or lack thereof) exemplifies how the greatness of this movie is not in itself, but in how it elevates A New Hope. Imagine a new viewer of the Star Wars franchise spending hours in this universe with virtually no exposure to the Force. It puts them in the same place as Luke when we first meet him- having heard of the rebels, the republic, the empire, and a galaxy populated by droids and aliens, but with no knowledge of the Jedi or the Force beyond an awareness of it being an obscure and more or less dead religion. In A New Hope, Han Solo scoffs when he hears’s Obi-Wan talking about the Force. He’s just learned that the old man who hired him is a crazy religious fanatic, naively insisting that the unstoppable empire can be defeated through the power of prayer. The subsequent demonstrations of the Force are made cooler by initial disbelief- disbelief that is undermined in the prequel trilogy by the ubiquitous presence of famous Force users who constantly influence the course of history with incredible feats.
Speaking of Force users, what of Darth Vader? Watching Rogue One first means the first time he appears on screen is different than what was intended when Star Wars was created, but it’s actually an improvement. He appears only twice in Rogue One, preserving the mystery of the character, and teasing the audience with a brief display of his terrifying power. Rather than seeing him for the first time as he boards the ship at the beginning of A New Hope, the audience has already briefly seen him him in action, in what is now one of my go to examples of “show don’t tell”. The audience doesn’t need to be told he’s a badass because it was established wonderfully on screen. The same is true of the desperation of the rebellion. Especially due to the amount of sacrifice and loss at the end of Rogue One, the sense of the rebellion as a tragic lost cause is communicated better than a New Hope possibly could.
And the flow between Rogue One and A New Hope isn’t just established by the final scene of Rogue One transitioning seamlessly into the beginning of A New Hope. There’s also the fact that Rogue One turns the franchises’ biggest plot hole, the Death Star’s improbably convenient weakness, into a great plot point. And on top of that there’s the fact that Rogue One depicts the exact events always mentioned but never shown in the opening crawl that appears at the very beginning of A New Hope:
“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”
The connection between the movies is so seamless that were it not for the more advanced visual effects in Rogue One, an ignorant viewer would likely believe that A New Hope was an outstanding sequel to a very good first entry. It’s very ironic that the first Star Wars movie not to be episode anything, a movie ostensibly intended as the first of many spin-off films removed from the main story established by the original trilogy, actually connects better than any of the prequels or the sequel. Rogue One is unmistakably Episode III in everything but name. It doesn’t top A New Hope, it transforms it, from being the first entry in a trilogy into an incredible second entry in tetralogy.